Directoer Aaron Woolf‘s doc “King Corn” is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In the film, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat and how we farm. Balcony Releasing opened the film in New York last Friday and it will screen in Washington, D.C. and Boston Friday, October 19 followed by Los Angeles October 26. Woolf answered questions from iW about learning filmmaking in Peru and finding the art of corn.
Please introduce yourself…
I’m from Baltimore and grew up in Princeton and even thought New Jersey is the ‘Garden State,’ yet I don’t think I’d ever planted anything in my life before we moved to Iowa to grow corn. I live in New York City now and am a partner in a restaurant called Lodge in Brooklyn. I’m sensing a pattern in that restaurants are famously about the most ill-advised places, besides documentary films, to put your money.
What lead you to become a filmmaker?
In college I studied political science and art as a double major. I always thought documentary could be thought of as a middle ground between politics and art.
Did you go to film school?
I had a really unusual trajectory as a filmmaker. After a short stint in Alaska as a commercial crab fisherman I moved to Lima, Peru where I worked for almost two years as an apprentice to Peruvian filmmaker, Francisco Lombardi. It was such a rough time in Peru’s history: there was tons of violence, constant blackouts, and a curfew but there was this law that said that before any foreign film played in a movie theater, they had to project a Peruvian short. So there was this incredible demand to make short films. I worked on a lot of them–doing everything from wardrobe to dolly to camera–eventually I became a shooter. It was like this incredible film school. After that I went to grad school for real, as it turns out, at the University of Iowa. I remember I would go out and ride my motorcycle in the corn and think how beautiful it all was. It would have been unimaginable to me at that time that I would ever move back to Iowa to make a film about corn.
How did the idea for “King Corn” come about?
The film was from the start was a collaboration with my cousin Curt and his best friend Ian who are the co-producers (and protagonists) of the film. We knew we wanted to make a film that looked at America’s health and diet crisis in a new way–something enjoyable, not preachy. I also thought from the start that we should approach the project as a kind of film that might really stand on its own as a non-fiction narrative film, not just as a lecture or investigation.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Well, trying to convince anyone that they should invest in or contribute to a film about corn was pretty challenging. I mean ‘watching corn grow’ is axiomatic for boring. Sometimes people would mishear me thinking that I was going to do an expose on the porn industry, and get all excited about the film. Then I would correct them and say, “no actually I’m going to do a film about the corn industry…” You could see the disappointment across there faces.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I try to approach each film differently, and I try to derive a visual vocabulary from the material of the piece. In “King Corn” there was a lot of center-framing and extensive use of both low and high angles. We really wanted to make the picture of industrial agriculture to be as monumental as possible. But as far as filming the corn itself, we worked very hard to convey that rich beauty of landscape of the fields and farms and of the plant itself. To me the paradox of something being so visually attractive yet so environmentally and societally troubling was more compelling than going for a kind of evil shadowy look for the corn.
How did you finance the film?
Unlike other recent films I’ve done (“9/12,” “Dying to Leave,” “Greener Grass”) which had just one or two funders each, “King Corn” had dozens of contributors–foundations and individuals like from Paul Newman to the Wallace Genetic Foundation to many other much smaller donors. It was really like going back to the bake sale approach.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I would say for this film both Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan were influential. Sclosser’s ability to connect the strands of disparate stories in the American foodscape and Pollan’s article about buying a steer and following it through the system as a kind of participatory journalism were really great works to consider when making this film. In the world of filmmaking, fiction films and experimental films have been as influential to me as non-fiction films. I love Peckinpah and Pennebaker and an Iowa-based experimental filmmaker named Leighton Pierce.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
Well I think we’re seeing the definition of “independent film” so much now in the world of documentary. Non-fiction has become such a broad and diverse realm of expression and narrative.
What are some of your all-time favorite films? What are some of your recent favorite films?
All time favorites include Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante”; Tomas Gutierrez-Alea’s “Memories of Underdevelopment, D.A. Pennebaker’s “Jane.”
Many of my recent favorite films are non-fiction from this year’s fest circuit. I loved Pernille Gronkjaer’s “The Monastery” and AJ Schnack’s “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” I have to also mention the film “Raiders: An Adaptation” which I saw at this year’s great True/False Film Festival. The film was such an amazing portrait of the joy and pain of filmmaking.
What are your interests outside of film?
I was raised loving the mountains and mountaineering. Lately, I’ve been building a house in the Adirondacks and it is such a great escape from the edit room.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
It’s funny the way the concept of success evolves. I have always thought that being able to make your next film is success enough and by that measure I have felt incredibly fortunate. Now I hope to find a little more balance in my life and work. Filmmaking is so intense, my real hope is to be able to have a family and continue to make films… That would be the new definition of success.